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Subliminal Tension 

The latest small film by Steven Soderbergh, “Kimi” seems to obliterate the distance between art and artist.

click to enlarge Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) works as a programmer for a Siri-like service called Kimi in Steven Soderbergh's latest, now available on HBO Max.

Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) works as a programmer for a Siri-like service called Kimi in Steven Soderbergh's latest, now available on HBO Max.

In an age of conglomerate sequels, in which even laypeople are conditioned to talk of “content” and “intellectual property,” Steven Soderbergh’s late films come as a profound relief. At least to people old enough to remember what his initial ascension as the lo-fi, maverick, writer-director of “Sex, Lies and Videotape” seemed to signify. The 1989 film ushered in a new era of American independent cinema and even won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. The reckless bloat of ‘80s commercial cinema appeared to have been refuted for a little while, as a new generation of unconventional American filmmakers blossomed.

The point of this history lesson, as a palette-cleanser for a review of Soderbergh’s techno-thriller “Kimi,” is to observe the cyclical nature of culture. Pop cinema has never been less human than it currently is, with every indication of personality sanded down for the sake of in-jokes and forgettable, phony, pre-fab action sequences designed to ensure as many global dollars as possible. In response to this sea change, Soderbergh has gone smaller and smaller in scale, fashioning fleet, character-centric thrillers that restore intimacy to American cinema. Decades into his career, after many zigs and zags, Soderbergh continues to hone the eccentric electricity that “Sex, Lies and Videotape” first promised.

Like many recent Soderbergh films, the sheer smallness of “Kimi” announces itself as a chic statement—a call to arms against pointless, currently fashionable bloat. It features only a handful of characters. It runs 89 minutes. Its script was written by David Koepp, a maestro of high-concept thrillers that tend to attract heavy-hitting stylists like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and David Fincher.

In fact, “Kimi” brings to mind the Koepp/Fincher collaboration “Panic Room,” from 2002. In each case, the director seems to be attracted to the merciless leanness and practicality of Koepp’s writing, which is very pointedly a blueprint for a collection of set pieces. There aren’t characters in either script exactly, but types with personality quirks that have been included as fertilizer for future suspense gambits. Koepp dares Fincher and Soderbergh to rise to the occasion with their technical bravura, as the skeletal narratives will not carry the projects alone. A hack or journeyman need not apply.

In “Panic Room,” Fincher amused himself with incredible, sometimes ludicrous tracking shots that emphasized the increasing constriction of a tony house as it’s besieged. Soderbergh, a more intuitive artist than Fincher, fashions sharp, canted low angles that breathlessly physicalize the heroine’s mounting anxiety. “Kimi” is a feast of visual texture, as Soderbergh, who shoots and edits his films under pseudonyms, mounts a cascading series of sinister cityscapes and objects that stick out just so in the frame, creating a nearly subliminal tension that is often paid off in unpredictable fashions. (A shot of a bottle of Kombucha resting perilously on the edge of a kitchen countertop is, weirdly, one of the film’s eeriest images.) In this plastic age, Soderbergh’s films are viscerally handmade.

Okay, the plot, which doesn’t really matter: Said heroine, Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), works as a programmer for a Siri-like service called Kimi, a device that looks like a large, silver Hershey’s Kiss and speaks in one of those rational computer voices that is both soothing and spooky. Kimi is said to be better than Siri and its ilk for employing humans who continually modify its communicative abilities. Angela, an agoraphobic with a traumatic past, spends most of her day in an expensive Seattle loft correcting awkward exchanges between Kimi and its customers, teaching it to understand slang, facetiousness, obscenity, etc. “Kimi” is quite casual about the fact that we are always being surveyed, and that most of us are gladly willing to sell our privacy for convenience.

Angela’s personal life echoes her obsessive, hermetic work routine, as well as the stifled social lives that many of us adopted during the worst of the pandemic. COVID-19 exists in this film, and Angela’s neighbors often peer in at each other through windows, filling in backstories with computer searches. This social context serves as a nifty modernization of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” and one of the chief regrets of “Kimi” is that Koepp and Soderbergh’s interests ultimately reside elsewhere. Editing Kimi’s conversational streams, Angela thinks she’s heard a murder, and she’s drawn into a paranoid corporate vortex that is deliberately reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.”

“The Conversation” invited us to savor every technological pore of the recording that may or may not reveal a murder—a pleasure that “Kimi” hedges on delivering. This is among the many limitations of Koepp’s “just the facts, ‘mam” style of beach-read minimalism. For Koepp, the murder is just a means to getting the action cooking, engaging Angela in a variety of chase scenarios. And as a result, the film’s pretenses of media satire feel thin, obligatory. But Soderbergh’s profound aural-visual poetry, suggesting the aesthetic of Godard’s “Alphaville” via Edward Hopper, transcends routine plot disappointments. Soderbergh seems to have almost entirely obliterated the distance between the artist and art, through endless refinement and parring down of the processes of filmmaking.

Currently available on HBO Max.

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